Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


‘Bride’ as Church metaphor : Psalm 44 revisited

Psalm 44/45 in a different version

I had another chance to set Psalm 44/45 recently, as it came up as a weekday psalm. This is the weird exotic psalm that we sing for the Assumption every year, the one I have called ‘the Klimt psalm’.   I’ve written before about setting it to emphasize the strangeness and barbaric splendour suggested by the words.  The whole psalm is a wedding song, celebrating the bride and bridegroom.  It makes sense in the context of the Assumption and Our Lady’s role in salvation history.  This version is different, and baffling in its context.  The choice and arrangement of verses is different, and the Response is another verse altogether.   Instead of ‘On your right stands the queen in gold of Ophir’, the Response is ‘Listen, O daughter, see and bend your ear’ (US and OZ, probably Canada too, but I don’t have a daily Canada Missal, so I can’t be certain); ‘Listen, O daughter, give ear to my words’ (UK, slightly less odd).

gorgeous robes and a nuptial kiss (Klimt)
A classic Epithalamion

What we have here is a small chunk (basically the few verses about the bride) from a classic wedding poem, or Epithalamion, an ‘into the chamber’ poem of celebration.  It begins with praise for the beauty and valour of the bridegroom and prayers to God for continued support.  Then there’s a (brief) section about the beauty of the bride; then a final prayer for sons to be born from this union and eternal happiness and renown.  Absolutely classic, you can find similar things in most cultures and periods of history.  Why is it prescribed for this particular day (Wednesday, 23rd Week, Year II) in the Lectionary?

Why here? The other readings

We know that the Responsorial Psalm is usually a reflection on the first reading, and on a weekday, when we have only one reading before the Gospel, it often functions as a type of bridge between the two, especially when the first reading is from the Old Testament.  But that is not the case here.  The first reading is from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, and it sounds like part of a set of very specific pastoral answers to questions that have arisen in that community. After various other pieces of advice, Paul says : ‘About remaining celibate, I have no directions from the Lord’, but he  goes on anyway to declare that men should stay as they are, either ‘tied’ to a wife or ‘free’, though it is not a sin for a young girl to get married.  He goes on to explain that ‘our time is growing short’, so the married should live as if unmarried, those grieving should live as though they are happy, and so on, because the world is passing away and everything is to be turned upside down.  I have described this at some length because that is the only way I can link it to the Gospel, which is a small part of the Beatitudes (Luke 6), where Jesus says (among other things), ‘Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh’, and explains that the kingdom of heaven will mean that those who suffer now will be full of joy.  This is the topsy-turvey message which Jesus so often voices (e.g. Matt 20.16 ‘the last shall be first’), and it occurs elsewhere too, notably in the Magnificat.

Not like the homelife of our own dear Queen

So I can see a link between the first reading and the Gospel, but I’m still baffled by the choice of Responsorial Psalm.  Paul has just told us that people should not be getting married at all, even if it’s not actually sinful.  But this psalm is an address to the bride, in an arranged dynastic marriage, adjuring her to forget her own people and her father’s house, because that will please her husband. ‘He is your lord, pay homage to him’ (UK, OZ and CAN words); more worryingly, especially with no reciprocity other than desire, ‘for he is your lord, and you must worship him ‘(US).  The princess is described, or rather her clothes are, ’embroidered with pearls set in gold’; ‘she is led to the king with her maiden companions’.  The bridal party enters the palace, and in a final address to the couple, they are promised sons to replace the fathers which she has already been told to forget, and these will be powerful princes, so the dynastic marriage will be a success.

Byzantine splendour, encrusted with jewels
The Church as the Bride of Christ…
Church as Bride of Christ a slightly odd image, but at least these are musical angels

I find it difficult to see how this sheds light on either Paul’s first reading, or indeed the Gospel.  Maybe I am missing some obvious theological or liturgical point here.  Traditionally, we are supposed to see in psalms like this one the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and a mystical version of marriage, but I don’t actually think this works, any more than it does in Revelation.  This is because the marriages which we regard as successful today are very different.  I don’t actually have anything against the idea of an arranged marriage, so long as it is by full and free consent of both parties; but I believe that a marriage needs to be a partnership of equals.

The Lord juggling, a better image of the Trinity

It’s not possible to be in an equal partnership with God, unless you are God, which is why the Trinity is a revolving relationship, like a spinning ball.   The sort of unequal relationship portrayed by the psalmist is not my idea of marriage, so the image of our relation to God as a marriage (either as individuals or as Church) does not work for me.

…but what sort of bride?

The only aspect of the bride which is developed is her clothes; her assets are  beauty, obedience and wealth.  The problem is not just the vast time difference between when the Bible was written and the present day.  The Bible even in the beginning shows more equal relationships :  in Genesis 1, Eve is made simultaneously with Adam and they are halves of the same whole.  In Genesis 2, she is made subsequently but of his very substance, because he needs a companion, a helpmate; no other created being can give him fellowship or mutuality.  The wives of the patriarchs are usually beautiful (and often wealthy), but there is more to them than this; and Proverbs 31 reels off an intimidating list of things that the good wife takes in her stride.  There are some great  (not just beautiful) women in the Bible, and I’ve written about them before.  Unfortunately when marriage is being used as a metaphor for Christ and the Church, we seem to concentrate more on the Psalms version than the Proverbs version, and it is too limited and dated to be helpful.

Less uncomfortable representation, French (British Library)
Setting awkward words

So how to set it to music?  I’ve done the barbaric splendour, with the Assumption version, and anyway, it did not seem to fit with the Response, which is intimate and personal.  The Response itself (not the UK version so much) presented its own problems, because it will be sung several times through the psalm and there’s no way that people won’t notice how odd the words are.  It’s difficult when the words are something which you could never imagine saying (‘see and bend your ear’) , because it must not sound ridiculous or undignified.  I think it’s meant to be high style, but it carries a severe risk of bathos.  Another similar example is ‘Lord, you yourself are my portion’ in Ps 15/16.  If you haven’t been desensitised to this by knowing it from childhood, I can’t see how you could react except with bafflement. And ‘portion’ is such a limiting word, used only in measuring out: portion size, portion control.  It turns up in one of the new Star Wars films, as a way of doling out meagre payment (here’s a link to a wonderfully nerdy explanation of how it works).  I don’t like thinking of God as a ‘portion’.

Brides, princesses and fairy stories
Princesses always dance, and minuets have charm

But of course that is not the sense, just as we aren’t supposed to home in on the concept of a bent ear; our modern understanding of the way the words are used is different.  I decided that the only way to set the Response was with a gentle tune which kept the eye and voice moving, and because it’s addressed to a ‘daughter’, it moved easily into almost starting to tell a story, especially when the stanza words are all about princesses and ladies in waiting.  So it turned into a courtly minuet, a graceful and sedate dance in three-four time.

Dancing princesses is a storyline I feel very comfortable with, from the Twelve Dancing Princesses who wear out their shoes nightly, to Cinderella and the three dresses for the three balls, each more beautiful than the last, until she leaves her shoe behind on the last evening.  Classic fairytale token, like the item clutched by a foundling, to be exchanged later for a rightful inheritance or a restored family.  You can see this dancing princess theme also in the (newish) modern tradition of the bride and groom’s dance at the wedding reception.  I say ‘modern tradition’, but in many countries something similar goes back a long way, and in Georgia there is an amazing wedding dance which moves from acquaintance through courtship to marriage, with the bride and groom circling each other, his eyes locked on her, hers modestly cast down, but their bodies, even their hands,  never touching.

Dancing, like David, before the Lord

For me this version of this psalm does not work as an image for the Church, or for Mary (luckily the Assumption words are more barbaric splendour and less fairystory),  but I can see it as a stylised wedding dance, a courtly one with bowing and little pirouettes.  I put the bowing and the little turns into the music.  I hope it will make the babies in the congregation want to dance; I always regard that as the ultimate compliment.

Musicians and tumbler
Church musicians doing their best to set people dancing

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.